The question most audiences will ask upon entering a theater playing "United 93" is, am I ready for this? Another way of putting the question might be, is it too soon for this movie?
It is one thing for us to have witnessed 9/11 as it elapsed on television. That was a real-world event. But what we have here is a dramatization of what happened aboard the terrorist-commandeered flight that went down that day in a Pennsylvania field with 40 passengers and crew.
The English director Paul Greengrass, best known for his incendiary documentary-style "Bloody Sunday," about the troubles in Northern Ireland in 1972, has gone to great lengths to achieve veracity. His script is based whenever possible on actual transcripts as well as extensive interviews with key officials and the families of those who died.
The cast playing the passengers and crew members were selected for their resemblance to their counterparts. In some cases, such as the casting of FAA operations manager Ben Sliney - the man who gave the order to clear the skies - the actor and real-life model are the same.
And yet no amount of research or faithfulness can obscure the fact that this is a fictionalized reenactment of an epically painful moment in our history. In the end, nobody really knows what happened on Flight 93 or what ultimately brought it down 90 minutes after it took off. Handled in the wrong way - i.e., as a standard Hollywood thriller - "United 93" could easily have inspired revulsion.
That isn't the case here. Although the film has been made with great finesse, it is devoid of showbiz exploitation. Even the thumping ominousness of the score is kept to a minimum. (The workaday sounds that we hear are so much more unsettling.) "United 93" is about as far from a movie like "Airport" as you can get. The actors are not supplied with the traditional character arcs and back stories common to the disaster film genre. When Todd Beamer (David Allan Basche) says, "Let's roll," it's practically a throwaway moment. Greengrass has made a docu-drama in which the story as it agonizingly unwinds is the true star. No one aboard the plane is singled out as any more or less of a hero than anyone else.
And yet Greengrass has said that these passengers were "the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world," and unavoidably he confers iconic status upon them. Their very ordinariness is what gives them their stature. The four hijackers are no more singled out than their hostages. It is their ordinariness that chills us to the bone.
The filmmakers are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to make a movie that dignifies the memories of the fallen and helps us understand the horrors of 9/11. But I think the gut appeal of this film is more primal than that. Even though I knew how the story would end, I had an almost visceral need to see it unfold. I needed to see the terrible chaos of that day, of that flight, ordered into a narrative, and I am sure I am not alone in this. Our misgivings about seeing this true-life scenario reenacted as a movie are trumped by our desire to know - if only by conjecture - what happened on the plane.
This is not to say that watching "United 93" is an uncomplicated experience. It pulls you in every direction. Mixed in with the staged portions is real footage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the devastation at the Pentagon. Passengers calling their loved ones on cellphones are mouthing words that real people spoke.
Despite the ordering the film provides, "United 93" taps into the helplessness we felt on that day. There is nothing cathartic about the movie. How can any film provide closure to an experience that is still ongoing? What "United 93" demonstrates, as if we needed proof, is that it is too soon - it may always be too soon - to sort out the feelings from that day. Grade: A
• Rated R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence.